Written by Misc, Music, Radio, Technology, TV

Quality

A recent entry on Boing Boing pointed to an article in Rolling Stone magazine which highlighted the fact that producers mix tracks so that they sound good when they’re ripped to an mp3 player, at the same time, removing the subtleties that a wider dynamic range allows.
Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow comments “…it seems to me that as a society, we’re happy to sacrifice fidelity for ease of use, flexibility and low-cost (see, for example, the trend from landlines to cordless phones to mobile phones to Skype). Designing for that, as opposed to lamenting it — is a damned good and realistic thing to do.”
But has he read the full article? If he has, then he’ll see that engineers and producers aren’t happy with this trend. What we’re getting are tracks with dynamic range compression to make them sound loud, thus removing some of the subtleties of the original sounds.
When you rip a CD to mp3 or similar lossy compression format, you’re losing some of that range. We’re often told that this compression simply loses audio beyond our hearing range, but it’s really not as simple as that – an mp3 does not sound as good as a CD track when you play it through some decent speakers.
If all you’re going to do is listen to your track through your iPod listening via the terrible ear buds that came with it, then you probably don’t care. But give the crappy compressed version of the track to people who buy it from iTunes if they’re happy with that. I still buy the majority of my music on CD because I want to hear the full range. I’ve got a rather nice stereo system with big floor standing speakers, and I can very much hear the difference.
Most FM radio stations also use lots of compression to make them sound “louder” and clearer than other stations on the dial. The music suffers.
You really can’t just design for the lowest common denominator, otherwise we might as well design music to be optimised for those kids who listen to it from the speakers of their Nokia mobile phones at the back of the bus.
It really is strange that at a time when in the A/V world, we’re all being persuaded to upgrade to HD TVs and high end 7.1 surround speaker systems to watch our Blu-Ray movies on, the CD world is going the other way.
But it’s not just CDs – there are plenty of other areas where quality is losing out.
In the digital broadcast arena, poor quality seems to be accepted. Look at TV channels on Freeview and compare, say, BBC1 with ITV4. The latter, even with recently made programming looks terrible in comparison because it has a much lower bit-rate. ITV4 is on a multiplex that uses a more efficient compression technology, but it’s still significantly worse. What that means is that channels look more “blocky” – something that’s especially apparent as we all get larger and larger TVs (you can see a range of bitrates here).
A recent Deloitte & Touche report into the efficient use of spectrum by the BBC even recommended that the BBC should reduce its bitrate to squeeze more channels on. Viewers don’t care they claimed. The BBC has promised to look into it.
In the run up to a full digital TV switchover in 2012, we’re now looking at the resulting over-the-air pictures being worse than the previous analogue pictures. Yes, plenty of households had ghosting on their sets due to misaligned aerials, or coat-hangers stuffed into the back of their portable units, but that’s not a reason to accept lower standards.
Satellite and digital cable are better but have their own issues. There’s not a bandwidth shortage (at least for satellite), and those channels that are obviously lower in quality are so because they output in that format, or they’re not prepared to spend enough on decent bandwidth on those platforms.
I am surprised that so few channels are broadcasting in widescreen – yes I’m looking at you UKTV and Virgin Media. Just about every TV sold these days is widescreen, yet even when a good proportion of their programming is now originated in 16:9, they persist in cropping it. There really is no excuse in 2008.
I’d love to say that my industry, radio, is better. But it’s not is it? DAB can sound fine, but unless you invest in up to date codecs (ahem, Digital One), or don’t overcompress, then it really doesn’t beat a good analogue signal. Ask a Radio 3 listener or a DAB listener to the mono Radio 7.
The industry would argue that listeners don’t care. They’ll point to the fact that most DAB sets sold are “kitchen radios” which natively come with a single speaker. So there’s no problem if they broadcast in 128k stereo (nearly every station), or even mono. Last Christmas, GCap launched theJazz and it’s been pretty successful, in audience terms at least. Yet it’s broadcast in mono. Now I’m no jazz aficionado, but surely this was a mistake. Jazz fans that I’ve met tend to be very particular about their listening environments, and high end kit is part of that. And maybe theJazz isn’t really aimed at those hardcore fans (in the same way that Classic FM isn’t really aimed at the die hards who prefer Radio 3), but it’s telling that they even answer the mono question in their FAQs (and there is some space on Digital One these days…). Stereo was first broadcast in the UK in 1925 yet over 80 years later, we’re not seeing greater dynamic range and more channels (5 or 7), but fewer.
If you look at the newspaper industry, they’re continuing to upgrade presses to allow full colour on all their pages, and trying to ensure that ink doesn’t rub off on your fingers. The technical quality is improving. Your local cinema probably sounds better than ever, and many screens are slowly becoming digital, meaning that we’re seeing fewer scratchy old prints, instead getting pristine copies as we tend to see on recent well-mastered DVD releases.
But in so much of the broadcast arena, we’re seeing declining quality. I’d argue that it was only recently that TV technology has improved to match a decent tube from ten or fifteen years ago, not displaying motion blur when showing sport, and handling dark pictures with lots of greys and blacks without “jaggies” appearing everywhere.
Quality really does matter. There are still many more stereo CD players in the world than mp3 players. At a time when record companies are facing a bleaker future than ever before, they might want to consider maintaining a quality product.
[UPDATE] Well what do you know? theJazz has just become stereo! Only 128kbps stereo – but that’s still a vast improvement! Well done GCap/Digital One for finally getting that sorted.
And while we’re talking about DAB – it’s a shame today to hear that Oneword is effectively being closed down as Channel 4 pulls out of it. Oneword has always been a troubled station since there was never any real investment. Ironically they did have some decent programming, but it was just packaged badly. There’d be an unabridged adaptation of, say, Oliver Twist, that would run to forty episodes. Nobody is going to follow a series that long apart from one or two very real die-hards. Radio 4 rarely run a daily serial over more than a couple of weeks, and their hour long Classic Dramas tend to be between 1 and 4 weeks with very occasional “epics” that might run 13 weeks. But getting a producer to edit down the readings to more manageable lumps from the original unabridged audiobook versions was obviously expensive. And in any case, they filled time, and filling 24 hours a day with non-music programming is not a cheap thing to do.
There were some good shows like “Between The Lines,” which felt almost unique in that it was book programme not presented by Mariella (Open Book on Radio 4, The Book Show on Sky Arts) Frostrop. But sadly it was lost amid the miasma of long form serials.
Of course this is also the problem that Channel 4 Radio is going to have. Widely touted as an alternative to Radio 4, it seems to me that it’s bound to be closer to the non sports parts of Five Live. Not for nothing have they hired Five Live’s Bob Shannon. They’re unlikely to have more than a few serial book readings if they’re sensible. Instead, the current affairs phone in is likely to prevail – less adversarial than Talksport perhaps.